Why racism is not only wrong, but also sinful and blasphemous
By Joshua T. Searle
The banality and superficiality of some of the responses from churches and Christian organisations to the murder of George Floyd (about which I wrote in my previous contribution to this blog) reminded me of the urgent need for theologians to grapple with the ugly reality of racism in our society today.
In my teaching at Spurgeon’s College, I lead a seminar on racism as part of my module on Christian Ethics. At the start of the seminar, I usually open up the discussion by asking the students a provocative question: “What exactly is wrong with racism from a biblical/theological perspective?”
I’m often surprised at the inability of even the brightest students to articulate a clear response to this urgent question. The responses tend to mimic the patterns of the contemporary media, which criticises racism on the grounds of discrimination and inequality. Rarely are students (of any ethnicity) able to formulate a robust biblical case against racism, using the full weight of Scripture and Christian tradition.
I think it’s essential for my students, many of whom will go on to become significant leaders in their churches and communities, to understand that racism is deplorable, not only because it promotes injustice and inequality, but because it a blasphemous violation of the sacred dignity of a human being who bears the divine image. Racism is not merely a social problem, but a sin or a blasphemy. Here are the three main reasons, from a biblical perspective, why racism is sinful:
(1) Racism is sinful because it is a form of idolatry. Racism turns racial identity into an idol and the concept of race is defined as the ultimate and immutable defining characteristic of what it means to be human. This is the kind of idolatry that would fall under the condemnation of the Apostle Paul when he spoke of those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”
(2) Racism is sinful because it defines human beings in terms of superficial biological characteristics. Rather than recognising the essential spirituality of all people, racism reduces human beings to biological identity. Christianity defines the human being primarily in terms of spirit, rather than biology. For the racist, a human being is little more than a carbon-based biochemical phenomenon. For the Christian, by contrast, every person, regardless of their particular biological characteristics, is “an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe” – to quote the words of Dallas Willard. Racism is therefore both anti-Christian and anti-human. The gospel issues a resounding “No” to all forms of racism.
(3) Racism is sinful because it destroys community. The Bible makes clear that God has ordained community as His primary means of building His Kingdom on Earth. Scripture testifies to God’s plan to reconcile diverse people into a healing unity in Christ by the redeeming power of the Holy Spirit. This reconciled community stands in stark contrast to the sinful politics of today that exclude people in the name of race, gender, class, ethnicity, nation, etc. This is the essential theme of the Epistle to the Ephesians.
The author refers to the creation of this new redeemed community as “the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 2:14) – i.e. the reconciliation of distinct races into one new humanity by breaking down the walls of hostility and making peace between them. Racism perpetuates division and enmity by dividing humanity into groups. Racism is therefore inherently destructive of community. When we use such categories as Black, White, Jew, Gentile, etc. to define ourselves in opposition to those whom we perceive to be inferior, we impede the coming of God’s Kingdom. We obstruct and frustrate the will of God to create a new reconciled humanity.
Students, pastors and all members of Baptist churches should understand that from a biblical perspective, racism is not merely a social problem, but constitutes a grievous violation of God’s plan for the reconciliation of the nations.
We would do well to remember the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr, who had he still been alive today, would have celebrated his 91st birthday earlier this year. His legacy has so much to teach us today about how to confront the sin of racism in the post-George Floyd era.
Liberal secular campaigners engage in commendable work by protesting against discrimination, inequality and other social problems. But King’s perception of society’s ills was and is far more profound and true. With the eyes of faith, King saw that racism was not simply a social or economic problem, but a metaphysical disease, a spiritual malady and a symptom of a nation whose soul was steeped in sin and idolatry. Racism, he claimed, had brought divine judgement upon all people – black and white. As well as harming the bodies of black people, racism was also rotting the souls of white people, and leading a whole nation down the road to that leads to damnation.
As is well known, this brave and principled prophet was assassinated. For a racist society that was propped up by a rotten crutch of lies and prejudice, the truth to which King, the prophet, testified was too much to bear. It is now time to rediscover the prophetic spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., who was not merely a prominent campaigner for civil rights, but also a Baptist minister and a prophet for his (and our) times.
This is why I continue to tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr, as well as the lives of other anti-racist martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in my classes at Spurgeon’s College. My hope is that these modest classes will be part of a much larger movement within our Baptist denomination. I pray that in the power of the Holy Spirit our Baptist churches will reap a mighty harvest of dedicated Baptist leaders, a new generation who understand that justice for our black brothers and sisters is not merely a social requirement, but also a non-negotiable gospel imperative.
Joshua T. Searle is Tutor in Theology and Public Thought; and Director of Postgraduate Studies at Spurgeon's College
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